Spender, Sir, Stephen Harold

(1909 - 1995)



Poet and critic. His father, E. H. Spender, was a distinguished liberal journalist, and on his mother's side he was partly of German-Jewish descent. He was brought up in Hampstead, and educated at University College School, London, and University College, Oxford, where he became friendly with Auden and MacNeice and met Isherwood. After leaving Oxford he lived in Germany for a period, in Hamburg and near Isherwood in Berlin, an experience which sharpened his political consciousness. In 1930 a small collection of his verse, Twenty Poems, was published, and in 1932 some of his work appeared in New Signatures; his Poems (1933) contained both personal and political poems, including 'I think continually of those who are truly great', 'The Landscape near an Aerodrome', and the notorious 'The Pylons', which gave the nickname of 'Pylon poets' to himself and his friends. He also published a critical work, The Destructive Element (1935), largely on H. James, T. S. Eliot, and Yeats and their differing responses to a civilization in decline, which ends with a section called 'In Defence of a Political Subject', in which he discusses the work of Auden and Upward, and argues the importance of treating 'politico-moral' subjects in literature. During the Spanish Civil War he did propaganda work in Spain for the Republican side, a period reflected in his volume of poems The Still Centre (1939). During the Second World War he was a member of the National Fire Service. He was co-editor of Horizon (1939-41) and of Encounter (1953-67). A gradual shift in his political allegiances may be seen in his poetry, in his critical works (e.g. The Creative Element, 1953, which retracts some of his earlier suggestions, laying more stress on the creative power and resistance of the individual), and in his contribution to The God that Failed; he also gives an account of his relationship with the Communist Party in his autobiography World Within World (1951). His interest in the public and social role and duty of the writer (a duty which he subsequently maintained in his work for the magazine Index on Censorship) has tended to obscure the essentially personal and private nature of much of his own poetry, including his elegies for his sister-in-law, in Poems of Dedication (1947), and many of the poems in such later volumes as Collected Poems 1928-1953 (1955). His other works include Trial of a Judge (1938), many translations (of García Lorca, Rilke, Schiller, Toller, and others), The Thirties and After (1978, a volume of memoirs), Collected Poems 1982-85 (1985), and his Journals 1939-83 (1985).

The Oxford Companion to English Literature, © Margaret Drabble and Oxford University Press 1995




The Landscape near an Aerodrome

More beautiful and soft than any moth
With burring furred antennae feeling its huge path
Through dusk, the air-liner with shut-off engines
Glides over suburbs and the sleeves set trailing tall
To point the wind. Gently, broadly, she falls,
Scarcely disturbing charted currents of air.

Lulled by descent, the travellers across sea
And across feminine land indulging its easy limbs
In miles of softness, now let their eyes trained by watching
Penetrate through dusk the outskirts of this town
Here where industry shows a fraying edge.
Here they may see what is being done.

Beyond the winking masthead light
And the landing-ground, they observe the outposts
Of work: chimneys like lank black fingers
Or figures frightening and mad: and squat buildings
With their strange air behind trees, like women's faces
Shattered by grief. Here where few houses
Moan with faint light behind their blinds,
They remark the unhomely sense of complaint, like a dog
Shut out and shivering at the foreign moon.

In the last sweep of love, they pass over fields
Behind the aerodrome, where boys play all day
Hacking dead grass: whose cries, like wild birds
Settle upon the nearest roofs

But soon are hid under the loud city.
Then, as they land, they hear the tolling bell
Reaching across the landscape of hysteria,

To where larger than all the charcoaled batteries
And imaged towers against that dying sky,
Religion stands, the church blocking the sun.









Mais belo e macio que a mariposa

De antenas felpudas, sussurrantes, sondando o vasto curso

Pelo crepúsculo, o avião, de motores parados

Plana sobre os subúrbios e o rasto alto das mangas

Apontando o vento, Suavemente, amplamente, desce,

Quase sem perturbar as correntes de ar assinaladas.


Embalados pela descida, os viajantes, abandonando

Através do mar e da terra feminina os fáceis membros

A milhas de macio, deixam agora que os olhos, treinados de ver,

Penetrem por entre o crepúsculo nos subúrbios da cidade;

Aqui, onde a indústria mostra a bainha coçada,

Aqui, podem eles ver o que está a ser feito.


Para lá da luz, piscando na torre

E da pista de aterragem, observam os postos avançados

Do trabalho: chaminés como dedos magos e esguios

Ou figuras loucas e terríveis; e casas atarracadas

Atrás de árvores, com um ar estranho como rostos de mulher

Devastados pela dor. Aqui, onde poucas casas

Gemem com luz fraca por detrás das persianas,

Notam a inóspita sensação de queixa, como um cão

Ao relento, a tremer sob uma lua estrangeira.


No último impulso de amor, passam sobre os campos

Atrás do aeroporto, onde rapazes brincam todo o dia

Aos pontapés na erva morta; cujos gritos, tais pássaros selvagens,

Pousam nos telhados mais próximos


Para logo se perderem sob o ruído da cidade.

Depois, ao aterrarem, ouvem o sino a dobrar,

Atravessando a paisagem da histeria, chegando


Até onde, num estrépito maior do que as baterias todas

E torres de carvão contra esse céu que morre,

Se ergue a religião, e a Igreja bloqueando o sol.




Poems (1933): XXX


In railway halls, on pavements near the traffic,
They beg, their eyes made big by empty staring
And only measuring Time, like the blank clock.

No, I shall weave no tracery of pen-ornament
To make them birds upon my singing-tree:
Time merely drives these lives which do not live
As tides push rotten stuff along the shore.

- There is no consolation, no, none
In the curving beauty of that line
Traced on our graphs through history, where the oppressor
Starves and deprives the poor.

Paint here no draped despairs, no saddening clouds
Where the soul rests, proclaims eternity.
But let the wrong cry out as raw as wounds
This Time forgets and never heals, far less transcends.

From Selected Poems by Stephen Spender, published by Faber



Too busy with other things

Ian Sansom finds milky plangency and sweet self-pity in Michael Brett's new edition of Stephen Spender's poems

Saturday June 12, 2004
The Guardian

New Collected Poems
by Stephen Spender
393pp, Faber, £30

In her justly famous two-punch poem "Poetry", Marianne Moore wrote: "I, too, dislike it. / Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in / it, after all, a place for the genuine." Moore's admission is a valuable insight and an important truth about poetry; Stephen Spender's New Collected Poems is the perfect illustration.

Spender might be described as a poet who was simply too busy doing other interesting things - writing plays, autobiography, journals, novels, translations and criticism, editing magazines, working for Unesco, teaching, lecturing, and making friends with the famous - to have actually got round to writing any great poetry. In a letter written to him in 1928, while they were still undergraduates at Oxford, his friend Auden told him, "Stephen, you are just not trying."

The truth is, he was probably trying too hard. Wading through the knee-deep romanticism and the flood of poorly plumbed imitation Auden and Eliot in his early verse, one eventually comes across a poem that stands out as a rock and a marker above all the others, the poem which begins, "I think continually of those who were truly great":

   "I think continually of those who were truly great.
   Who, from the womb, remembered the soul's history
   Through corridors of light where the hours are suns,
   Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
   Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
   Should tell of the Spirit clothed from head to foot in song".

This is landfall, the first sight and clear sound of Spender's true home territory - a place of milky plangency, thick vowel-honey and sweet self-pity. It is also, notably, a vision of and desire for greatness rather than the thing itself.

The "truly great" haunt, taunt and eventually dement Spender's poetry, so that he ends up sounding like the sad old man down the pub with no money who's always talking about his rich and famous friends. In the poem "Matter of Identity", for example, from what is probably his best collection, The Generous Days (1971), Spender observes of an individual who may or may not be himself:

   "Sometimes he had the sensation
   Of being in a library, and reading a history
   And coming to a chapter left unwritten
   That blazed with nothing nothing except him
   Nothing but his great name and his great deeds".

And probably his best early poem begins, tellingly: "After success, your little afternoon success, / You watch jealous perplexity mould my head / To the shape of a dark and taloned bird / And fix claws in my lungs, and then you pass / Your silk soothing hand across my arm / And smile."

He dreamt continually of greatness and success. In World Within World (1951), the book in which he came closest to achieving his dream (and which is without doubt one of the most important English literary autobiographies of the 20th century, comparable with Cider with Rosie and Osbert Sitwell's Left Hand, Right Hand! ), he wrote: "Within each there is a world of his own soul as immense as the external universe, and equal with that, dwarfing the little stretch of coherent waking which calls itself 'I'." Spender's own desire for immensity led to his constantly seeking out invites to meet the great and the good. Virginia Woolf, for example, recalls him writing, "saying he cares for my praise more than for that of any critic"; she later described him as having the "makings of a long-winded bore". In his typically adulatory poem "V.W. (1941)", Spender recalled: "That woman who, entering a room, / Stood, staring round at all, with rays / From her wild eyes, till people there / And books, pictures, furniture - / Became transformed within her gaze." It's possible she was just looking for a means of escape.

Most discussion and criticism of Spender's poetry concentrates on his work of the 1930s - Twenty Poems (1930), Poems (1933), Vienna (1934), The Still Centre (1939) - but of course most of us wouldn't wish to be judged merely on the writings of our youth, particularly if those writings contained lines such as "My parents kept me from children who were rough / And who threw words like stones and who wore torn clothes", or "Pylons, those pillars / Bare like nude, giant girls that have no secret".

The two books in fact that clearly stand out in Michael Brett's beautiful, crisp, clean edition of New Collected Poems are Poems of Dedication (1947), and the much later The Generous Days (1971), the book in which Spender admits to and makes the most of his failings. He was always an awkward poet but in these later poems he becomes, one might almost say, a poet of awkwardness (Louis MacNeice described him as a "towering angel not quite sure if he was fallen"). Far removed in place and time from the overstatements and fey rhetorical inversions of his 30s verse, these later poems are full of stumblings, hauntings, shame and confusion.

"Sleepless", for example, begins: "Awake alone in the house / I heard a voice / Ambiguous - / With nothing nice." And it ends, with a nod perhaps to Hardy and to Tennyson's "In Memoriam" ("He is not here; but far away / The noise of life begins again, / And ghastly through the drizzling rain / On the bald street breaks the blank day"):

   "Let me in! Let me in!",
   Tapping at the pane.
   Him I imagine,
   Twenty years in the rain".

John Sutherland's recently published biography of Spender portrays him as a charming innocent, a big man with huge enthusiasms, with opinions and ideas on just about every fashionable theme and topic, who wrote about art, literature and the life of the mind in his voluminous autobiographical writings, and in his criticism and in essays for just about every high-toned magazine going - from the New Statesman to Horizon to Partisan Review, and the Saturday Review, the Nation, Kenyon Review, Atlantic Monthly and all the others. Spender's poetry is best read as a footnote and adjunct to these other achievements; but this is hardly to condemn. In "Spiritual Explorations" from Poems of Dedication, he writes: "Since we are what we are, what shall we be / But what we are? We are, we have / Six feet and seventy years, to see / The light, and then resign it for the grave." New Collected Poems attests to the value of this bleak observation.

Ian Sansom's Ring Road is published by Fourth Estate

More on Stephen Spender
When Stephen met Sylvia
Stephen Spender: The Authorised Biography
Natasha Spender: 'I was never in the faintest doubt of his devotion to me'